Public Councils as the Effective Means of Decentralization of Power in Democratic States

Posted on: 20-12-2017

By Slyamzhar Akhmetzharov

**The contents of this piece were presented at the Herat Security Dialogue – VI (13-14 October 2017).**

The participation of ordinary citizens in the public administration process is the essential need of any country. According to the Aarhus Convention (UNECE 1998) the development of the access of government information to the society positively influences on the citizens’ knowledge about current problems in the state as well as provide opportunities for people to show their concerns regarding governments policies. These in turn allow state authorities to develop policies, which satisfy the expectations of the majority of people.

It should be mentioned that there are many ways of introducing public into the governments’ decision-making process. One of the popular methods is the provision of platform for states’ consultations with the society regarding the particular issues. Generally, the implementation of governments’ consultations with society could be divided into the two categories. Firstly, state administration could initiate Crowdsourcing in order to discuss certain policies. Secondly, the government could create the special advisory institutions, which involve the representatives of civic society.

The method of Crowdsourcing assumes the involvement of large amount of people into the process of discussion of many topics. This practice is popular in the United States, where governing bodies of different states inform the citizens about the forthcoming reformations through the daily journal “Federal Register”. Every citizen has the right to suggest the recommendations regarding government initiatives through email or direct participation in public hearings of states’ administrations. State authorities must consider all the people’s enquiries within the 30-90 days and demonstrate the modifications to the reformations according to the interested parties recommendations. Another example of the mass introduction of the civic society into the government’s decision-making process is the Finland, where every citizen has the right to suggest the draft of the law for consideration in the parliament. In order to do that an individual need to be supported by more than fifty thousand compatriots on the online platform of the “Open Ministry” service.

The creation of the special advisory institutions assumes the involvement of the limited number of society’s representatives into the process of discussion of wide range of problems. These special advisory institutions could be called the “Public councils”, which main characteristics are well developed organizational structure and power to influence government’s decisions through provision of consultations on social, economic, ecological and other topics.

The institution of public councils has been widely developed during the XX century, which is notable for the significant rise of civic movements. Nowadays, the different forms of public councils exist throughout the world. The priority board council in the city of Dayton, USA, enables local citizens to demonstrate their priorities in the city development for local administration; the public council in Brazil (Porto Allegre) allows local people to participate in the administration of the city budget. German Advisory council on environment provides recommendations for federal government regarding the questions for protecting the environment. National Seniors council in Canada consult the Ministry of Health regarding the questions of supporting the lives of old people, Economic social council in France provide opportunity for a professional unions to take part in the socio-economic policy making,  National minorities council in Czech Republic consult the government regarding the rights of national minorities. There are many other examples of councils.  So it can be noticed that today public councils have been widely developed around the world.

Purposes of public councils

The main purpose of public councils in the international practice is the participation of civic society in the provision of consultation to the government sector. Depending on the objectives of councils, they can be divided into two categories, the one that considers the wide range of problems that affect many people and the one that deal with specific problem, which influences the small number or category of people.

Wide-range oriented councils can solve various problems. The vivid example of such an institution is the Socio-Economical Council in France, which considers issues related with economy, finance, environment, foreign affairs, professional workers, agriculture and many other spheres. As for specific councils, they can participate in the administration and allocation of local cities budgets (i.e. Porto Allegre, Brazil; Dayton, US), the national budgets (Hungary), also councils may enable governments to examine the society’s opinion regarding specific topics such as the aging problems (i.e. Canada), disabled people (i.e. Denmark), national minorities (i.e. Czech Republic), the environmental problems (Germany) and other questions.

The next defining feature of public councils is that they can be formed on the local or national government level. Public councils in the cities of Porto Allegre, Dayton, San Francisco, and Szczecin formed by city administrations and allow local citizens to participate in the governance of their respective cities. While, national level public councils in Germany, France Canada, Hungary, etc. formed around the ministries.

As public councils usually formed through governments initiatives, they can consist of public employees and the representatives of civic society. However, the proportion of government workers and citizens may vary considerably. For instance, in the city of Porto Allegre 46 out 48 members are representatives of city neighborhood and only 2 members are from city administration. What is important here, is that these two city administration members cannot vote, they can only influence on the decision making of other members by providing necessary information, which is in the competence of city administration.

The next defining feature of public councils is the process of their funding. As a general rule, the members of the council are not paid, but their expenses on business trips as well as the administrative expenses of the council and the services of invited experts are covered by the budgets of governmental organizations. However, there are some exceptions when governments fully support the activities of public councils. For instance, in Social Economic Council, France and Dutch Council on disabled people, the governments, apart from financial support of the operational activities of the councils, pay salaries of the members of the council.

So, how public councils are functioning? Usually there are public hearings held on regular basis, where members of the council discuss the issues regarding economic, social, environmental, and other types of development. In order to understand the problems, there could be government employees invited to the sessions to provide the necessary information about the particular topic. Also, In order to produce coherent recommendations, the public councils may use the services of experts, who have specific knowledge about each particular topic. These experts are invited to the sessions to explain the issues. Next, public councils may monitor the execution of the different national or local projects from the beginning till the end. Usually at the end of year public councils prepare the reports about their activities; these reports are open to the public. The recipients of consultations ministries and local city administrations consider the recommendations of public councils and choose whether to implement into practice the provided suggestions or not. In case, government sector reject the suggestions, they need to provide the coherent explanation why recommendations of the public councils have not been accepted.

To sum up, one of the important criteria’s of a democratic country is a building of stable relationship between the elected government and a civic society. The institution of public councils enables governments to establish the bond between the legitimate state authorities and ordinary people. The introduction of public councils is essential democratic initiative, since state consultations with the society provide grounds for the development of policies, which satisfy the expectations of the majority of people. Relying on the international experience of public councils, it can be concluded that there are three main conditions for successful functioning these institutions:

Firstly, in order to successful implementation of the institution of public councils there should be genuine interest from the government officials toward considering the opinion of the population. In a democratic society, all the government officials are interested in the considering the interests of their voters. By consulting with citizens on certain issues, providing them all the necessary information and education services in order to teach them the nature of government policies, state authorities demonstrate their honest interest. Obviously, the main indicator of the effectiveness of the institution of public councils is the implementation of their recommendations and suggestions by government workers.

Secondly, public councils could be considered as the platform where interested parties of the society meet in order to promote their interests. So, the conflict of opinions within the councils is beneficial, since it allows the government as the recipient of recommendations to evaluate positions of all the parties in the council. Also, as the membership in the council is voluntary, time-consuming and requires sometimes citizens own resources there should the genuine interest from the citizens to solve the problems and belief in the possibility to influence the government decision-making. On that condition, the citizens may contribute to the effectiveness of councils.

Last but not the least, in order to public councils become successful. They should be legally organized and protected from the pressure of the government organizations.

Slyamzhar Akhmetzharov is a Researcher at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, under the President of Kazakhstan.

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The article does not reflect the official opinion of the AISS.